Christmas hope for power-sharing in Northern Ireland

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The Independent Online

Hopes of a breakthrough before Christmas in the Northern Ireland peace process were raised by Downing Street last night before talks between Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

Hopes of a breakthrough before Christmas in the Northern Ireland peace process were raised by Downing Street last night before talks between Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

The Prime Minister's spokesman gave the clearest signal so far that Mr Blair is determined to press ahead before the end of this week with plans to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland for the first time in two years.

Mr Blair and Mr Ahern will meet in London tomorrow to agree their strategy. Mr Blair will then be calling in the leaders of all the major political parties in Northern Ireland for talks after his meeting with the Irish Prime Minister.

The No 10 spokesman added: "We have been in very intensive discussions with all the major players and will continue to be so. There is an awful lot of activity behind the scenes. Sometimes our silence is in inverted proportion to how important and how significant matters are and that is the case now."

Mr Blair and Mr Ahern believe that a fresh IRA statement offering evidence of weapons decommissioning is needed to unlock the stalled talks on restoring the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive. The IRA is believed to be ready to allow a Roman Catholic priest and a Protestant cleric to oversee the next step in the destruction of its weapons to reassure the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley. They may also offer photographic evidence, for the first time. Carefully choreographed steps are being taken to reassure the DUP, including the expression of regret by republicans for the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974, although this stopped short of an explicit IRA apology.

Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, has led the behind-the-scenes talks and Mr Blair has met the party leaders. Senior officials in Dublin said it was unlikely a final breakthrough will be achieved tomorrow but Mr Ahern and Mr Blair are said to have agreed that a decision needs to be reached by the end of this week.

Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, said yesterday that the republicans were seeking a "comprehensive breakthrough by all parts of the equation". He said that would present difficulties for republicans but it was less difficult than getting Mr Paisley to recognise the importance of sharing power with elected representatives of republicans.

David Trimble, the leader of the official Ulster Unionist Party beaten into second place by Mr Paisley's DUP in the assembly elections in December 2003, said last night: "We cannot keep on drifting. Tony Blair has to get a grip."

The London and Dublin governments will warn the parties that if they cannot reach agreement, then they will act together to move the process on. Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, said in The Irish Times: "If one party adopts a rejectionist position, and vetoes the institutions, the two governments need to compensate for this with new, imaginative and dynamic alternatives. This includes joint responsibility for the areas of government which would otherwise have been administered on a power-sharing basis."

After talks at Leeds Castle in September the DUP refused to sign a deal, demanding more proof of IRA decommissioning. General John de Chastelain, the head of the international arms decommissioning body, has confirmed three significant such acts by the IRA, but the DUP say that there is not enough evidence.

Mr Paisley has demanded also that ministers in the assembly, including Sinn Fein leaders, should be answerable, in effect, to the DUP. Both governments have made it clear that is not realistic. Senior Dublin officials said it would amount to majority rule, which runs counter to the spirit of power-sharing.

In the 2003 elections, the DUP won 30 seats, the UUP 27, Sinn Fein 24, the SDLP 18 and the Alliance six. That left Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, and Mr Paisley, the two arch-opponents, holding the fate of Northern Ireland in their hands.